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Whales and Other Wonders

whaleDid you ever read a book in your teens or twenties for school and then run into it later in life and think, “Wow, I hated this book in high school/college, but now I love it”? Moby Dick is that book for a lot of people. They give it to 16 year olds and expect them to give a flying about this nutty guy who goes to sea because he’s bored and cranky, and also to care about his affectionate and heavily tattooed roommate and about some weird kid who falls off a boat and becomes damaged and eerie, all while these people stab whales and tie rigging and say, “Yessir!” to the monomaniacal, verse spewing amputee who captains the ship. Starbuck is the only normal one and he is just as boring as he is on Battlestar Gallactica (the first one, kiddos — it was a sad, polyester-ridden time).


So cute. So boring.

So yeah, I get it. You may be reluctant to pick up Moby Dick again, but give it a try! It is a beautiful rendering of the human condition, filled with poetry and love for the the physical world. It’s a can’t-look-away plunge into what happens when a person feels that the world has betrayed them. It’s lyrical and haunting and revelatory and has a terrific plot and will change the way you look at everything.

That said, I here offer a brief benediction:

By the power vested in me by 20 years of bookselling, You Do Not Have To Read the parts About Cutting Up The Whale or the parts About How To Tie Knots For Sails And Whatnot. There will not be a quiz. Just skip ahead. Amen.

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Books of Comfort and Joy

One of the most profound things that reading can bring us is comfort. I’ve heard lots of parents complain that their kid just wants to read the same book over and over. “I want them to try something new,” they’ll tell me. What the parents don’t realize is that we all seek reassurance from familiar settings and plots — literary and otherwise. And just like a very small child is soothed by hearing a favorite bedtime story for the eighty-bazillionth time, we take solace from novels that we know will end happily and from stories that allay our doubts — stories that tell us we are right to love the world.

Here are some books that I hope will do just that.

All Creatures Great and Small, by James Herriot  You may have read this before. It’s worth doing again. This memoir of a veterinarian in the Yorkshire Dales is warm and beautiful. Herriot truly loved the animals he cared for and the people he worked among. His recollections are sprinkled with humor and full of caring. This is the first volume, and chronicles his time getting used to practicing in in the remote rural communities he would come to call home. The other volumes are wonderful too, so please do try All Things Bright and Beautiful, All Things Wise and Wonderful, and The Lord God Made them All.* A few of the stories are sad, but most are hopeful and joyful. They are some of my favorites. You can also get All Creatures Great and Small in large print. Many of the stories have been adapted for children. They are lovely as well and are collected in James Herriot’s Treasury for Children.

Sweet Thursday, by john Steinbeck  My dad gave me a copy of this years ago. It’s a sort-of sequel to Cannery Row, full of quirky characters and salted with laughter. Doc, the main character, never fails to make me smile with his determination to be unabashedly himself. Steinbeck’s wry observations and deep humanity make me love the flawed but beautiful denizens of his sketchy coastal world. A note to mixologists: This novel also describes what may have been the first beer milkshake.

Persuasion, or really anything by Jane Austen  –I’m not sure if this story is for real, but I have heard that during WWI they used to recommend Jane Austen to soldiers suffering from shell shock. The idea was that nothing alarming or violent ever happens in Austen’s novels, but they’re still engaging and enjoyable. I wonder how many soldiers developed a lifelong devotion to the works of Jane Austen. I also wonder how many of them wished that the books were longer. And heavier. And able to produce a really satisfying thunk when thrown against the head of the doctor, chaplain, or senior officer who recommended them. I adore Austen, but I’m thinking that if I were fresh out of the trenches I might just want to murder everyone in Mansfield Park.

Still, I heartily encourage everyone to pick up a Jane Austen novel right now. If you read one in high school and hated it, maybe give it another try. Her plots are intricate, her dialogue witty enough to be quoted on coffee mugs to this day, and come on — a million BBC adaptations can’t be wrong. My personal favorite is this Pride and Prejudice miniseries. Time to binge watch!

Vita Sackville-West’s Garden Book  This is the perfect thing to read on those unexpectedly bleak, chilly days in April or early May when –this year especially– we despair of spring. There is always hope in Sackville-West’s garden. She was constantly planning some new scheme of color or form and urging others to do the same. One of my favorite things about this collection of her garden writing is this quip about an idea for a silver-gray, green, and white planting: “It may be a terrible failure. I wanted only to suggest that such experiments are worth trying.” The experiment turned out to be the White Garden at Sissinghurst.

white garden

Vita Sackville-West’s Garden Book is out of print, but you can find a copy at Better World Books quite cheaply. You can also find used (and reasonable) copies of V. Sackville-West: The Illustrated Garden Book through The Antiquarian Booksellers Association of America and The Strand Bookstore in New York. Links go right to each book’s entry on the sites. I’m an independent bookseller — you know I wouldn’t send you to Amazon.

Last but not least, I give you some of my favorite poems. Like a lot of folks, I’ve been on Facebook frequently lately, keeping track of what friends and family are up to and how they are. Like you, I’ve seen a few Mary Oliver poems being shared. I take so much joy from her work. I dip into New and Selected Poems, Volume One often — whenever I need to wake up a little bit more to the wonder of the world.


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